All Suffering Is Local

August 27, 2008

On September 11 at about 7 a.m. local time, my daughter and I hugged each other as we considered the implications of what we had just witnessed. She was up early to get to a CD production meeting at her charter school. The radio woke her with news all over its format instead of Avril Lavigne. She quickly got me up and told me we had to watch the news. It wasn’t hard to find. It was on most television stations.

I turned it on just minutes before the second plane hit the towers. As I said, she hugged me and I hugged her and we cried softly. All day I went through the motions of work, more captivated by hearing news than with feeling or carrying opinions. I want to say that I felt the pain of all those dead people and their mourning families. I guess there was a level of empathy that gave me enough space to feel some pain. But really, I just had the mentality of those who travel slowly by a car wreck to see if anyone could possibly survive. I wanted to be informed. I would sort out my feelings later.

My writing teacher that afternoon said we shouldn’t write anything about this day of horror for many months. A tragedy this extensive needs time to marinate and we need space to contemplate its deeper implications. So I didn’t write anything down about it. Today is actually the first time I have written about it at all. Let me tell you why.

On September 13th, at 10:15 p.m., two days later, I was sitting in bed reading a novel when the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law Donna. She could hardly talk. She asked if she could speak to Kathy, her sister. Within seconds of handing her the phone, our suffering had started. In an incident completely unrelated to the Trade Center disaster, Kathy’s older brother Gary had died of heart failure. He was 54. Kathy sobbed and screamed and went through most of the steps of grieving that night. We called a friend to come over and he brought comfort. There is no question in my mind that I felt the same kind of pain that the 9-11 mourners were going through. It was no longer a distance problem. Suffering was living in my home.

The next day we began to make plans to head up to Canada for the funeral. But reality set in at that moment. The borders were essentially closed and all airline flights were grounded. How could we even get up there? Added to that was a responsibility I had. That morning, I got a call from a sweet young lady who attends our church fellowship. When I heard her voice, I remembered that I was performing her wedding ceremony on the beach in Carmel that Saturday. She was in tears and told me she was going to cancel the wedding. She didn’t know about my brother-in-law, but she had learned that most of her guests could not attend because they were flying in. They had postponed the wedding on two other occasions and I convinced her not to do it again. We could do the wedding with a smaller crew.

It never occurred to me at the time that it would have been easier for me if she had cancelled. I felt her pain and I couldn’t tell her about ours. Not on this happy occasion.

So we did the wedding, and then we drove all the way home from Carmel to change and then drive all night up to Canada, hoping the whole way they would let us through the border. It took some explaining, but after several hours, we got through. What a nightmare trip.

Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House for over a decade once said, “All Politics is Local”. By this he implied that people can talk all they want about the big issues confronting a nation, but what they really care about is what is happening in their neighborhood. The nation warrants our opinions: The neighborhood receives our deepest emotions.

I realized the week of 9-11 that the same can be said of suffering. The further we are, both geographically and emotionally, from the center of pain and suffering, the less we feel its impact. That may seem trite and obvious, but consider the implication. It is not until we feel the pain in our own lives or the lives of those around us that we are moved to make change, to consider the real purpose to our lives or to weep with those who weep.

But, you say, you were crying for those who died that morning. I guess I was…but honestly I hurt for my little girl who hurt. We all hurt when we see the pictures of the mourning families and the burned out buildings and the children climbing mountains of garbage. But the pain leaves with the pictures. The pain of local suffering stays with us. Television news, with its constant barrage of pictures, can extend our pseudo-pain, but it leaves as the pictures stop.

I saw the mayor of New Orleans leave the Democratic convention this afternoon to rush home to his town. Why? Because there is a chance of a major storm hitting, and he wants to get it right this time. I imagine not a week goes by as he sees how many homes in New Orleans still have condemned signs on them, that he doesn’t feel the suffering. The rest of us have long since forgotten it.

But think about this. To God, everything is local.

Think of his suffering.


  1. Not sure if this is applicable, My brother and sister-in-law are on a mission to stop anyone they can from seeing the film, Tropic Thunder. Not because of any bad acting or shallow scripting, but because the movie continually mocks the mentally handicapped in a way that is very “local” to them. My niece is mentally handicapped.

    They struggle every day with getting the routine to work and speak for those who have no voice. So in a show of local solidarity, I too have decided we will not watch Tropic Thunder.

  2. I’m not going to watch it for about 100 reasons. I heard an interview about their use of the word “retarded”. What is interesting about that word (according to my wife who works with the mentally handicapped) is that “retarded” is the term used by both the government and associations dedicated to the handicapped (i.e. SAR…Sacramento Association for the Retarded).

    But Aaron, your point is well taken. Whereas most people would not be offended by the words used, your brother is offended because it hits close to home.

  3. Aaron is talking about my granddaughter. I’m thankful for the show of solidarity. I wonder what would happen if everyone who “suffers locally” regarding mentally handicapped people would take that kind of a stand?

    By the way Mike, I lurk on your site from time to time. Your church is what I miss the most about my kids moving away from Sac. Well, that and the ease with which we could fly in, as opposed to where they are now!

  4. Hey Pat. We do stand with you as your son and family raise their daughter. We do miss seeing you guys in your semi-annual visit down here. I hope life is going well for you and your family.

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